The Parliamentary System of Government: Merits and Demerits


The Parliamentary System of Government: Merits and Demerits

The previous article examined the meaning and features of the presidential system of government. It also elucidated its merits and demerits.

In this article, our discussions shall focus on the parliamentary system of government. We shall clearly highlight its major characteristics as well as the dual nature of its executive and the balancing role it is meant to serve.


The Meaning of the Parliamentary System of Government

The parliamentary system of government is a system of democratic governance of a country, wherein the executive branch is derived from the legislative body, i.e. the Parliament. Here, the executive is divided into two parts, the Head of the State, i.e. President, who is only the nominal executive and the Head of the Government, i.e. Prime Minister, who is the real executive, performs the real and executive functions.

In a parliamentary system, the political party that wins the maximum number of seats during federal elections, in the Parliament, forms the government.

The party elects a member, as a leader, who is appointed as the prime minister by the president. After the appointment of the prime minister, the cabinet is formed by him, whose members should be out of the parliament, the executive body, i.e. the cabinet is accountable to the legislative body, i.e. parliament.

In Britain, a good example of a country operating the parliamentary system of government, the prime minister, who is the head of government, performs the substantive executive functions. The prime minister is usually appointed by the head of state from the party that controls majority seats in the legislature.

The head of state, like the Queen in Great Britain, performs ceremonial duties like welcoming foreign dignitaries, presiding over important national functions or ceremonies, signing bills into law in the parliament and addressing the parliament at the beginning and the end of parliamentary life. Nigeria practiced the parliamentary system of government in the First Republic.


Collective Responsibility

In the parliamentary system of government, members of the government are collectively responsible for the successes/failures of the government and all ministers, not just departmental ministers concerned, must collectively share moral responsibility for its policies.

Implicit in this is the notion that all ministers are bound to support government decisions before the public, parliament and the party, and at the very least, must refrain from openly criticizing government policy.

This doctrine also implies that a minister who dislikes a particular government policy must reconcile his differences or resign from the government. Sometimes resignation comes immediately, as Mr Christopher May how did when he resigned over defense policy in 1966.

Alternatively, the ministers may remain for a time in the cabinet hoping to convert its views as with Mr Frank Cousins who was known to be hostile to the prices and incomes policy of the then Labour government long before he eventually resigned


A similar lack of cabinet solidarity on a fundamental issue was revealed in 1974 when both Michael Foot (Secretary of State for Employment) and Eric Heffer (Minister of State for Industry) openly disagreed with the Labour Government’s decision to supply arms to the then new anti- Communist regime in Chile.

The maintenance of a united government front is an essential prerequisite for the preservation of party discipline in the Commons and to the answering of opposition and public criticism of government policy.

In this respect collective responsibility also serves as a means of suppressing differences of opinion within the government itself. The doctrine applies to all ministers, from senior cabinet ministers to junior ministers.

Read On: The Parliamentary System of Government: Meaning and Features

Merits of Parliamentary System of Government

i) The parliamentary system of government curbs autocracy and dictatorship in government. It is very difficult for the system to breed or produce dictators since the government is always conscious of the fact that if it does, it will incur the wrath of members of parliament which may lead to the passing of a vote of no confidence on it. The notion of party discipline which requires that both the government in power and members of parliament follow the laid down policies and programmes of the party as contained in its manifestoes usually ensure that neither the government nor the parliament crosses the line.

ii) The parliamentary system promotes dedication and efficiency in government. The ministers at party caucus must have thoroughly discussed proposals/bills before bringing them to the parliament for consideration. This ensures quick approval of policies and enacted of laws since members of the cabinet also sit in parliament where they see to their passage. In addition, to avoid criticisms and the possibility of a vote of no confidence in his government, the prime minister is always conscious of putting in the best. This is done through regular check on the activities of his ministers.

The efficiency of ministers is further open to closer scrutiny during Question Time.

iii) There is a lot of merit in the concept of collective responsibility which requires all members of the cabinet to be united in all its decisions. This makes the cabinet as a body to be careful about its conduct in office because it may have far-reaching implications on the stability and survival of the government. The parliamentary system is equally responsive to public opinion. This is because the cabinet is not responsible to the Prime Minister who appoints them but to the parliament.

iv) The presence of an officially recognized opposition party in a parliamentary system of government makes the ruling party or the governing coalition to be conscious of its responsibilities to the electorate. For this reason, the government is always alert to alternative views that may be canvassed by the opposition to know where to improve its performance. The role of the opposition party, therefore, is not only to constructively criticize the government as an effective watchdog but also to see itself as the government in waiting or as an alternative government, that is ready to take over the government should the situation arises.

v) The fusion of power which ensures that cabinet members are also parliamentarians promotes mutual understanding between the legislative and the executive branches of government. The fact that members of the executive also sit in the legislature as lawmakers ensure that the process of decision making is faster. It does not require further elaboration to know that consensus on major issues can be easily reached since the cabinet usually operates as a committee of the parliament.

vi) The parliamentary system is less expensive to run because ministers are chosen from elected members of parliament. This is not the case under the presidential system of government where ministers are chosen from outside the parliament. Thus, the additional money that will be required to hire more hands outside the legislature is saved in a parliamentary system of government.

vii) Despite changes of government at regular intervals, the nonpartisan but largely ceremonial and symbolic role of the monarch or head of state in a parliamentary system contributes to continuity and sustenance of state institutions. 

For example, in Britain, because the Queen has been in office since 1953, she has remained the anchor of stability of the British institutions and values, despite changes in governments in the country in the past 53 years now.

Read On: Presidential System of Government: Meaning and Features

Demerits of Parliamentary System of Government

i) The best people may not be in government since the Prime Minister is restricted to appoint ministers into his cabinet from members of his party. This is not the case in the presidential system of government where even the non-card-carrying party members are appointed to serve in the cabinet and other key positions in government.

ii) Parliamentary system violates the principle of separation of powers and the expectations that liberty of the citizens and rule of law will be guaranteed. A major disadvantage of fusion of powers is that it may lead to a needless bottleneck in the relationships among the organs of government and complexity in the administration of government. iii) There is also the danger of personality clash or conflict of interest between the head of state and head of government in a parliamentary system of government. 

This type of conflict of interest manifested in the First Republic in Nigeria when Dr Azikiwe, then President and Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, then Prime

Minister disagreed over the conduct and outcome of the December 30, 1964, federal elections. In September2010, the Somalia Prime Minister, Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke resigned from office due to personal disagreement between him and president Sheik Sharif Ahmed. Thus, Nigeria opted for the presidential system of government in 1979 partly to avoid a possible repeat of the constitutional crisis, which enveloped the country in the aftermath of the disagreement between the two leaders.

iv) Another demerit of the parliamentary system of government is that it can also throw up a person who is not countrywide popular or known as a Prime Minister. Unlike the presidential system, which requires the president to have a countrywide appeal before he can be elected, the requirements for the office of a Prime Minister are less stringent. Any elected member of House of Commons from a single-member constituency who is believed to have the majority support of other members can become the leader of the government in Britain. This was exploited in Nigeria during the First Republic when the leaders of the Northern People’s Congress did not bother to campaign in the other regions because they were confident that votes from the Northern region alone were sufficient to earn them the prestigious post of Prime Minister.


Applications of the Parliamentary System of Government

Britain is one country in the world that is foremost in its adoption and practice of the parliamentary system of government.

In Britain, there is a separation between the head of state (the Queen) and the head of government (the prime minister). Under this system which is also referred to as a cabinet government, the parliament is the supreme legislative body in Britain.

The parliamentary system after centuries of its operation in Britain has remained, to a reasonable extent, a success story.

Nigeria operated the parliamentary system of government in the First Republic, and like Britain, its Parliament was bicameral (the Senate and House of Representatives). But unlike the British model, Nigeria had a written constitution. Before Nigeria became a republic in 1963, the head of state was designated a Governor-General, then a titular head just like the Queen he represented.

But after 1963 when Nigeria became a republic the post of head of state was renamed the President. The title of Prime Minister for the head of government was retained in 1963, as it was in 1960 when Nigeria became independent.

Nigeria, however, discarded the parliamentary system in 1979 after the return to democratic government, because the ills and consequent failure of the First Republic were partly blamed on the parliamentary system of government.

Read On: Evaluation of Rule of Law in Nigeria

Conclusion on the Parliamentary System of Government: Merits and Demerits 

The parliamentary system of government is one of the democratic ways of organizing a government. Its practice in Britain has been so successful that countries outside the Commonwealth of Nations are craving to adopt it.

Indeed, Canada, despite its proximity to the United States and its readiness to always collaborate with the latter in other areas continues to retain its parliamentary system while its leaders regard it as near sacrosanct.

Although the parliamentary system is not without its drawbacks, when compared with the presidential model, on balance, it is seen by some as a preferable system of government.

Our discussions in this post have focused on the meaning and merits and demerits of this system of government and cited the example of Britain as one country in which the culture of Westminster parliamentary system is fully developed and thriving. We noted that the parliament is the hub of the parliamentary system while the cabinet is its caucus, where the operators of the system regularly meet to shape public policies.

And we cited the example of Britain as one country in which the culture of Westminster parliamentary system is fully developed and thriving.

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